Screw the Mars Cheese Castle.
Wisconsin’s premier tourist trap is the Wisconsin Dells, that orgiastic family playland halfway between the Twin Cities and Chicago, pitting spectacles of nature against waterparks in an unrepentant warriors’ quest for your cash. Named for a local river gorge, the Dells experience feels like it sprang from the minds of demented timeshare salesmen, conspiring in windowless cheese-filled rooms while trying desperately to out-weird-Americana one another. Is there anywhere else in the country you can float around in repurposed military craft, watch a terrifying clown water ski, and shoot fish with crossbows? I submit that there is not.
So this weekend’s Los Dells Festival makes a certain amount of sense. Billed as the first multi-genre Latin music festival in the Midwest, Los Dells trades on the name recognition of a familiar landmark -- while wisely taking place somewhere else.
You can find the festival at Woodside Ranch Resort, a... somewhat subtler weekend getaway located 20 miles north of the Dells. (In this case “subtler” means more horses, fewer clowns, and you can only shoot the arrows at targets.) Festival organizers hope to attract 20,000 Latin music fans, primarily from Chicago and the Cities, and the performers represent all the most popular strains of Spanish-language pop music, as well as some of the wildest.
The festival’s biggest coup is headliner Daddy Yankee, the Puerto Rican reggaeton pioneer who’s closing out a triumphant summer of “Despacito,” his inescapable crossover collaboration with Luis Fonsi and Justin Bieber. For comparison, imagine a startup festival in 1995 landing Mariah Carey or Boyz II Men. Yankee has charisma and novelty hits to burn, from last year’s one-take rap “Shaky Shaky” to the sleek electro of 2010’s “Vida en la Noche,” which shouted out both Guns ‘n’ Roses and Hillary Clinton.
Other big shots include the enormously influential Mexican rockers Maná, who sound like Sting if he was an even bigger hippie; Puerto Rican new jack Nicky Jam, currently featured on half of Billboard’s Hot Latin chart; and Bronx R&B/bachata heartthrob Prince Royce, who has more crossover hits and more exquisite hair than the rest of the lineup. Except for L.A. pop star Becky G, that is -- after putting herself on the map with the Radio Disney staple “Shower,” Becky is currently enjoying her biggest Latin hit, “Mayores,” about how much she enjoys the courtesy and girth of older gentlemen.
It’s a sentiment the caballeros in Los Tucanes de Tijuana surely appreciate. Heading up the festival’s Mexican norteño contingent is this long-running accordion quintet, founded in 1987 and specializing in narcocorridos, those infamous story songs about real-life cartel honchos. Since narcocorridos’ radio prospects are always a crapshoot, Los Tucanes also have a dispiriting catalog of boring romantic hits; let’s hope they decide to mix things up.
More exciting are the young corrideros of Fuerza de Tijuana, whose guitars and prominent rhythm section dance around one another like a pointillistic rock band. They scored a surprise U.S. radio hit last year with “El Americano,” a tribute to Boston narco (and Johnny Depp Method subject) George Jung. And for heaven’s sake, don’t miss Victoria “La Mala,” a powerhouse banda singer signed to Roc Nation, inspired by Tupac and Selena, and likely to sing her Spanglish version of Bieber’s “Love Yourself.”
If that ain’t Americana, I don’t know what is.
Los Dells Festival
Where: Woodside Ranch Resort, Mauston, Wisconsin
When: Sat. Sept. 2, Sun. Sept. 3
Tickets: $99-$385; more info here